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Creighton holds off UConn’s comeback bid to shore up NCAA Tournament resume

Ryan Kalkbrenner scores a 22-point double-double as Blue Jays pick up a massive 20th victory

Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner (11) and guard Trey Alexander (23)
Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner (11) and guard Trey Alexander (23)
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Creighton Blue Jays (20-9, 12-6) entered tonight’s game off a disheartening 21-point loss on the road at Providence. While there’s no shame in losing to the No. 1 team in the Big East, it immediately followed news that star point guard Ryan Nembhard would miss the remainder of the season due to a wrist injury. It was a cruel twist of fate for Creighton, who entered the Providence game on a six-game win streak.

After losing Nembhard and getting blown out by Providence, Creighton’s NCAA tournament hopes were put in serious jeopardy. Would the committee punish the Jays if they stumbled into Selection Sunday?

Well, needless to say, the Blue Jays aren’t going to have to worry about all that now. With tonight’s win over No. 18 UConn, Creighton is widely thought to be a virtual lock for March Madness. So how did they do it? How did they knock off one of the top teams in the Big East, one of the hottest in the country, all while missing their starting point guard?

Creighton looked sharp from the get-go. They were moving the ball effectively, picking apart the stingy UConn defense, they were getting out in transition, playing smart defense without fouling, and controlling tempo. Arthur Kaluma had a quick 10 points (he would finish with 15), including this jam:

Still, the domination wouldn’t last long for Creighton. Eventually, UConn tightened up its defense, and Nembhard’s absence was starting to be felt, especially in regards to ball-handling. Creighton committed a few turnovers, and even on possessions they didn’t turn the ball over, they never really looked comfortable.

UConn clawed their way back all the way from being down 16 to tie the ballgame at 50. But they never took the lead. Every time they came close, it seemed like Kalkbrenner would get out in transition, or pop a nice pick-and-roll to get open under the basket. Creighton started showing their own defensive prowess, too; freshman Rati Andronikashvili finished with three second-half steals, and 6 of Kalkbrenner’s 10 boards came on the defensive end.

UConn hit some big buckets down the stretch—RJ Cole (20 points) looked like he was about to take over at one point—but after the 50-50 tie, they never inched closer than two points.

In a year when Creighton’s offense has not been as pretty as it usually is, it’s been the defense that has done the dirty work—they rank 24th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. And while UConn couldn’t pull off the road win, I left the game feeling no worse about their chances to make a run in March.

At the end of the day, Creighton played this game as if it were a must-win. They had energy, composure, chemistry, and made big plays when they needed to. The Jays and the Huskies are now tied for third in the Big East, but Creighton holds the head-to-head tiebreaker after completing the season sweep of UConn.

UConn’s final game will come at home against a DePaul team who has won...checks notes...THREE games in a row?? Hold on, that can’t be right, can it? Nope, yeah, I’m now being told that it is indeed true. Wow. It seems the Blue Demons might not be the pushover they’ve been in recent years. Better bring your A-game, Huskies ;)

Creighton looks to carry momentum into the postseason against Seton Hall at home on Saturday. The Pirates eked out a close win against Georgetown tonight, so one would think that’s a winnable game for Creighton.